From the Wellspring of the Soul

by Nelson Willby

Any genuine attempt to take hold of the world view of Rudolf Steiner is met with an extraordinary mystery. There are two aspects of this mystery experience that one may have. One is the sheer scope and depth of the ideas that form a vast, living interconnected tapestry, embracing every strand of knowledge, shedding new light on the nature of the human being and the world. And the other, equally as awesome, is the amazement that gradually dawns on one at the realisation of the deafening silence that surrounds the creator of Anthroposophy – literally a wisdom of the human being – the name given by Rudolf Steiner to his worldview. His name and work remain, for the most part, unknown after almost eighty years since his death in 1925. Actually, it is possible to explain in part the phenomenon of silence that surrounds the work and personality of Rudolf Steiner. His whole thrust would have entailed first, a complete renewal of Christianity, and further, a renewal of the cultural life of humanity as a whole. Is there any wonder that he was the target of numerous attacks by different groups, who worked to destroy him and would have moved heaven and earth to prevent such aims from being realised?

Could anyone have been more deserving of a supreme place in the academic world and in the public arena than the creator of a worldwide agricultural movement, an educational movement for life, a medical and pharmaceutical movement, a renewal of the sacramental life of Christianity, a social impulse that includes a true solution to the monetary problem, a master of history dealing with ancient civilisations and their complicated unfolding in the historical course of human development? As a consummate artist he was the founder of numerous artistic schools. He founded schools of sculpture, painting, speech and drama, a school of dance movement to which he gave the name of “eurhythmy”, and architecture. Steiner was the builder of two remarkable buildings, one made entirely of wood which was tragically burnt to the ground by an arsonist. It comprised the commitment of artists from seventeen different nations that came together to work on it during the terrible years of the First World War and was near completion after almost ten years of work. Following its destruction, he immediately set to work in the raising of a second building, completely different, made out of different material – a whole different vision. He sculpted a group of figures in wood, over thirty feet high, giving the name of “the representative of humanity” to the central figure. Steiner also wrote four mystery dramas which bring the spiritual world onto the stage.

But his achievements go further. By training Rudolf Steiner was a scientist and a philosopher and his lectures on science were directed to scientists and philosophers. These gems and nuggets of ideas are still waiting to be developed. Perhaps, most of all, it is in the art of life that Rudolf Steiner embraced the profound ideas of reincarnation and destiny, or karma to use the Sanskrit term. In this view the fullness of life is seen to be unlimited, and like the plant that is able to grow through the concrete, encompassing and surpassing death itself growing far beyond the boundary of our present life into the vast reaches of cosmic life after death, digesting what the soul has lived through in its life just completed. Thus it makes preparation for a subsequent life on Earth in the light of all the preceeding. The development of consciousness is the outcome of this creative activity. It is the theme and story of the human soul which is supported and helped in this creative activity by the great angelic choir of beings.

We can accurately speak of the remarkable work in this area as comprising a modern book of the dead, that Rudolf Steiner brought together, comparable to that of the Egyptian or Tibetan. In fact, ancient people the world over each had their own book of the dead, describing in terms appropriate and vivid for the time the passage of the soul after death, and the preparation needed to be made for it.

The ultimate intention of his teaching was to offer the human being a path of inner development by means of a schooling to quicken and awaken higher faculties and quality of consciousness capable of higher knowledge. He characterised Anthroposophy as a path of knowledge guiding the Spirit in the human being to the Spirit in the Universe.

Now this whole edifice is predicated on the foundation of a theory of knowledge which asks, how do we know what we know? What is the nature of human knowing? How are we to understand the nature of truth? And ultimately, what is truth?

Without such a through-going philosophical basis the supports to buttress such a comprehensive and extensive world view would leave itself dangerously open to ongoing philosophical criticism and attack.

In what follows I would like to take up one aspect of this whole fabric and attempt to deal with it by way of example. I shall try to come to a deeper insight into understanding our human nature and in fact, to what makes us human.

Let us start with the great question, who am I? And it’s accompanying questions, where have I come from? And where am I going? Why was I born? What is life all about? These questions formed the centrepiece of all ancient striving. So immense were these questions that many different centres of mystery wisdom from different perspectives arose to do justice to this “infinite question”. The candidates that were carefully selected for the schooling and severe trials involved were to be prepared over many years to deal with and gradually develop the faculties needed to awaken to the cosmic greatness of the human being that the above questions point to.

Call to mind the ancient motto, “Know Thyself” found over the portal of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This motto alone poses a subtle conundrum. It presupposes a dichotomy in the human being, as the knower and the being he knows himself to be. This distinction needs to be recognised as a distinction in consciousness. There is no suggestion of an artificial division of man into two parts in all this, but the fact that I can and certainly do to some extent know thy self, implies an I that knows and a self that is known. One is the subject, the other the object. Knowing is centred in the subject, not the object. The knowing I therefore cannot be the self; nor is the self that which knows.

The justification for this lies in the fact that the I is that characteristic of consciousness that never changes; whereas the self is changing from moment to moment. I am no longer the child I was at the age of three but the I that knew me as a child of three is the same I that knows me now several decades later. If it were not so I could have no knowledge of ever having been that child, for however I have changed in regards to myself, I have not changed as I and however much that self may change in the future I shall still be aware of it as I.

It is this changing human entity that we are to understand as the self, distinct from the I, the central knowing being. That self is changing all the time; everyday, indeed every moment adds something to it. The knowing I alone remains unchanged. Thus we can distinguish two components in the total being of ourselves, a fixed and unchanging point of knowing being, I, and a continually changing complex of experience that we know as ourselves. The self then is the sum total of all the changes the I is aware of from its unchanging standpoint of knowing being. What we seek here is to realise the unity in the multiplicity.

Let us consider an example from the subject of astronomy. If we wish to understand the nature of the movement of celestial bodies, such as a planet or a comet for example, the astronomer turns his telescope to the object and seeks to calculate its place in the firmament and its rate of movement. But this can only be done if there is a fiducial system, a fixed framework of objects, that is to say the fixed stars, registration of movement could hardly be made. If everything were moving, we would be embedded in chaos. Nothing could be known then. It is the same for our human nature. Our fixed frame is the unchanging I consciousness without which no conscious awareness could arise of the changing events of the self.

The animal by contrast, lacks the informing presence of the knowing I principle which makes possible the self consciousness that informs the human being. For the animal soul there are only sensations which would otherwise be chaotic, were is not for the built in crystallised thought patterns in the animal that enable it to flourish in a particular friendly environment. These are the animal instincts. The creature would suffer were it removed from that particular environment and placed in another which did not accord with its original habitat. Only the benign intervention of the human I can restore a favourable order to the animal existence.

Now if we seek to discover how all these changes come about in the self while the I remains unchanged, of course we shall find that they have to do with time. Time is a factor which has to do with the self but much less to do with the knowing I. The I is clearly aware of time, but as something quite apart while it is intimately bound up with the self as the determining, shaping force.

If we take time to mean movement in a plane, as the site of all world events, as they play themselves out in space and time, then we must realise that I should not be able to make any statement at all about time and change if there were not something in us which is subject to neither, the knowing I.

So we can say that the self to that extent is a product of time. The knowing I however is not. The self is both in time and of time; the I enters into time, but is not of it. In its own nature it has nothing in common with time. It is always I. The self is a time being; the I is timeless. However to say of it that it is timeless is not quite correct either. For timelessness is invariably understood in a time context, that is, time going on and on endlessly, but that is not what is meant by the timeless nature of the I. The real word here for timeless is “Eternal”; something more than or beyond time which included time in it as a line includes a point, a plane a line, or a cube point line and plane. The I must, therefore, be described as eternal – the unchanging entity we are which makes it possible to register and be aware of the temporal life of our self which is constantly changing.

It may be worth pointing our the following observation. Is it not interesting that everyone has the same name, namely “I”. We all speak of ourselves as I, such as “I was delighted with the programme”, etc. And yet we are on the other hand all unique, every last one of us. No two biographies are the same. Here is something to ponder on.

When we say I we are really referring to the self in normal parlance. The I identifies with the self. One can say “I am getting old.” But that is not the case. What has happened is that the I, which was present when one was what would have been called young, is still present now when one is what is called old. The I, the unchanging factor in all this, has noted certain changes, particularly those in the body and identifies with them in that way. But the I has not become old. What has become old is the self, and apart from what limitations that may impose on the I in respect to the self, the I is still the same. Still unchanging. It is because we identify the I with the self that we make such statements as the one above. In fact, we can go much further in our grasp of this relationship of I to self and say, “We were not born; nor shall we die!” Again, the changeable conditions of birth and death presuppose an identification of the eternal I with our temporal self. But the human spirit, the knowing I is unchanging, eternal, in fact our true parent who has begot us.

Let us continue. The I however is not completely swallowed up in this identification with the temporal self. It retains sufficient awareness of its eternal and therefore knowing nature to be aware of its changing identity through all the changing forms of the self. It is the unique eternal nature of the I, existing in this identification with the self that enables us to know ourselves through all the vicissitudes of life. Never the less it is not the fullness of the I but an I limited by the consciousness of self. The I then identifies itself with the self at the lowest point of its axis in the plane of time. The upper end, however, recedes into the eternal, into the more than time. Here it has its origins and its real being. Indeed the real extent of the I can be imagined as that axis itself as a whole, originating in the eternal and continuing unbroken into time. If the I were completely identified with the self, cut off from its source, it could not know the self as the product of time, for knowing is the characteristic of the “I” in its eternal nature and which it preserves under all conditions of the temporal. I repeat, it is only because the I derives its essential nature from a source that is more than time that it is able to know its life in time as a temporal phenomenon and, indeed, it is only on this basis that we can even speak of time at all.

It is just because the being of man is made up of an eternal part and a temporal part that he is able to bring impulses into the temporal which derive their content from the Eternal. These are the moral impulses which in conjunction with the human will change what otherwise would happen in time as predetermined necessity. We must be clear that there are no moral impulses in time; only events. There may be moral customs and traditions but they are merely the continuation of what has already been committed to time, and what has then been taken over by the law of cause and effect which operates strictly in the plane of time. Moral impulses however come from beyond time and are brought into time by virtue of what judgement the knowing I passes on what happens there. And the criteria for such judgements are moral concepts and ideas.

To the extent the I brings moral ideas into time it changes what would otherwise happen in time. It does so through the medium of the human body. In so far as the I identifies with the self, it is subject to what happens in time; in so far as it acts out of its own, essential eternal nature it is the arbiter of its own destiny and therefore free. Freedom is the ability to act out of one’s own eternal, essential nature. The opposite of freedom is being completely subject to the law of cause and effect. The law of cause and effect rules in the self; freedom only rules in the I.

This throws new light on what we call the future. As the development of what is subject to the laws of cause and effect, the future is only really non-existent to the extent that our position in time prevents us from seeing what is virtually, already there. The future then is like a landscape, the remoter parts of which are unknown to us simply because we cannot see them from the level on which we stand. Were we to ascend only a few hundred feet, imaginatively, we should see what is invisible to us now. The future in that sense is as much there, already in existence, as the present. It can only be changed by what the I as a free moral being, brings into time as a moral impulse from that source where the law of cause and effect is not the deciding factor.

Our future therefore is in part predictable, and in part unpredictable. It is predictable through the inevitability of cause and effect. In fact, the law of cause and effect demands that everything we not only do, but also think and feel ripples out into the world producing its effects which, in one way or another, return to us. This is known as the working of karma. The future is however unpredictable through what comes to it from beyond time, by the I and changes the inevitable.

Thus all things can be changed or metamorphosed into a desired alternative. In other words, there is a solution to every issue or earthly problem, but to find it appeal must be made to the eternal or spiritual realm in which that moral impulse or idea, we might also say imagination can be drawn forth to lock into the earthly problem and unite with it, fulfilling it, completing it and solving it.

What our past has made us is by the law of cause and effect already predetermining our future. In the realm of time no freedom is possible, but our humanity, the essential nature and origin of which is I only comes into our awareness of consciousness at its lower end where it identifies itself with the self in the plane of time. The knower in us in the plane of time [which Rudolf Steiner calls the “soul”; please see the figure at the end of the text] is capable of awakening to its true nature which in everyday consciousness lies hidden. By following a path of inner training, this awakening can gradually take place. This involves the bringing forth of those moral ideas which can lead to a redeeming of what is otherwise pre-determined.

This is where freedom lies for it is in functioning as a knowing “doer” drawing forth those imaginations, making it possible to metamorphose our destiny in the plane of time, the plane of world events to bring about the development and fulfilment of our lives. We could also speak of inspirations and intuitions, technical terms of Anthroposophy, where we are talking about different and higher levels of consciousness of the I activity in us.

Please refer again to the illustration at the end of the text. Let us denote the lower end of the I axis where it intersects the plane of time and is one with the self as little i. This gives us two forms for one and the same word, i and I, but this should not confuse us as long as we remember that they refer to the same concept in two different states of consciousness. We could also refer to them as lower ego and higher ego. But i and I are not only more economical of space but just as obvious in their meaning. The knowing i is what Rudolf Steiner calls the “soul”. Spiritual development has to do with the human soul, the little i in my figure gradually awakening to the fullness of the I in its real nature.

Great art, and especially great literature, has as one of its abiding archetypal themes the search of the soul for the spirit. This appears in its most imaginative manner in those significant occult documents given to a simple humanity by great but mysterious teachers. I refer to the so called fairy tales, particularly those collected by the brothers Grimm in the 19th Century. There you see in wonderful pictures [spiritual imaginations] how the soul represented by the female being, the princess, searches for the spirit, represented by the male being, the prince, who have to go through painful and difficult trials to overcome themselves until at last, perhaps lives later, when they are able to unite and celebrate the mystical marriage and live happily ever after reflecting a humanity having reached a certain fulfilment!

We can represent all this by means of the following figure. (see attached diagram.) We will use the lemniscate to represent the “self” contained completely in the plane of time. It is a single curve, but giving the appearance of being composed of two distinct parts. If the whole figure represents the self, then the two parts can represent on the one side the past and on the other the future. As the future is continually becoming the past and the past which is what we ourselves in our totality are now, becomes the future, then the cross-over point can only represent the “now”. The now can only be where the eternal and the temporal, the I and the self meet in the plane of time. It is always now for the I. Only the self belongs to a past, present and a future. The cross over point is now, that which is neither past nor future but both. And that is also where the I is one with the moving, changing life of the self. If we take the plane of time to be that on which the possibility of every kind of event is possible, then the self is that which is moulded and shaped by those events. We must think of the I as operating on an altogether different axis. The I can only be thought of as operating perpendicularly to the plane of time. The lowest point of that axis will be where the I meets the plane of time and takes part in what happens there as i. To this extent the I as i can be said to exist in time, but it is not of it. Only the self is completely of time.

Some of the foregoing ideas have been taken over, more or less completely, from a slender volume called “Thinking about Knowing” by Alan Howard, which we have dealt only with the main part of the first chapter. Our whole endeavour has been to take hold of the nature of the human being as a being of body, soul and spirit. As a beginning, this may serve as a introduction to open a door or perhaps turn a wall into a window.

In the foregoing, spirit and soul have been described, but for completion a word needs to be said about the body. Of course, it is the body that we are aware of. We are told by modern science that we are only a body guided by a brain, and that we essentially cease to be when we die. By so doing, we deny ourselves, our very existence within reality, with stark consequences which will need to be accounted for eventually.

Our body is completely part of the world, existing in time and space, an object like other objects. The world mirrors itself in the body by means of the bodily senses and in perception the i beholds this mirrored image of the world and the i thinks about it. Thinking, the activity through which we draw forth the appropriate concepts, is the means whereby perception becomes knowledge. The union of percept and concept in knowledge we call reality. The soul, the i, is the intermediary between the body and the spirit.

In conclusion, I would like to refer to a verse that Rudolf Steiner gave as an esoteric lesson, providing a commentary for the following lines:


More radiant that the Sun,

Purer than Snow,

Finer than the Ether,

Is the Self, the Spirit in my Heart

This Self am I.

I am this Self.